Out of all the advice I’ve been given over the years there’s one that has been by far the most valuable.
Not too long after joining Made by Many the time came for my first client presentation. Just as I was heading out the door my boss pulled me aside to share some words of wisdom. His advice was this, “If they ask a question and you’re unsure of the answer, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”.”
During the taxi ride to the client’s office I reflected on these words. In the client’s eyes I’m the hired professional, an expert in my field, surely experts should know all the answers? And yet I had just been given permission to break that illusion.
I rehearsed ways of saying I don’t know.
I don’t know… but I could find out for you.
I don’t know… but that seems really interesting, let me get back to you on that.
I don’t know… we should probably do more testing to find out.
In past meetings I’ve done what I suspect we all have in times of high-pressure questioning, I’ve bullshitted my way through it. If you’ve visited enough boardrooms there’s no doubt you’ll have experienced someone answering your question with bullshit. You can smell it, can’t you? As soon as they start talking you somehow get a sense that they don’t know the answer, that they’re making it all up. Naturally, the next question that comes to mind is, “Can I trust you?”
In her book, Presence, Amy Cuddy explores how when we lie it’s not often our words but our bodies that betray us—something that’s all too visible when we watch people who can’t admit that they don’t know: “This self-deception is, it turns out, observable to others as our confidence wanes and our verbal and nonverbal behaviours become dissonant. It’s not that people are thinking, “He’s a liar.” It’s that people are thinking, “Something feels off. I can’t completely invest my confidence in this person.””
With trepidation I applied my boss’ advice. I felt liberated and at the same time surprised to find that my confession of not-knowing to a room of senior stakeholders passed by without scrutiny—a minor footnote in the minutes, “must learn more on that matter”.
After the meeting I meditated on the impossibility of knowing all. How did we end up with a business culture where everyone is expected to know the answers? It’s not as if it’s just my industry either, I’ve seen it time and time again.
In fact, nowhere is this tendency more visible than in politics. The fear of losing face seems to be driving force here. In their desperate attempts to avoid potential humiliation, politicians dodge questions, waffle on the fringes of the subject, make up figures, and tell ‘bare-faced lies’. Despite their best efforts they often come off worse as a result. An audience member’s disdain for Theresa May’s “bollocks” during an episode of Question Time captured the public’s mood so well that it went viral.
This is an extreme of what’s happening in business boardrooms across the country, but only just. The situation remains the same, a difficult question comes your way and the first instinct is to just start talking. Perhaps the intention isn’t to lie but in the effort to avoid looking like an idiot that’s exactly what we do. It wouldn’t be such an issue if only it wasn’t so obvious.
How we arrived at a business culture like this is beyond me. Especially considering that in creative fields, not-knowing is seen as a positive—a state of mind that aids towards the creation of something new.
Writers use it to to embody characters who hold views different from their own. “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how,” says Donald Bartheleme in his posthumous anthology Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews.
In science, not-knowing drives new discoveries. The scientist James Clerk Maxwell once said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
And when employed by designers, embracing not knowing allows them to innovate by immersing themselves in another’s world. In Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking, Phil Duncan defines innovation as “that which connects the familiar with the unknown.”
So given the choice would you rather people saw you as someone who talked a load of bollocks or someone who is capable of admitting where they lack knowledge? It’s time we took this lead from creative fields and embraced not-knowing, the state that the poet Keats termed “negative capability”—
when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Of course, achieving a degree of comfort with this requires courage and humility but the payoff is trust and respect. Good clients will be thankful of your honesty and great clients should already realise that the basis for effective collaboration is the exchange of understanding between experts of differing fields.
So as you go into your next meeting don’t fear being found out or losing face. Instead, be proud to embrace not-knowing and invite the room to journey with you along the path of wisdom and doubt.
Start by saying those liberating three words.
I Don’t Know
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I did a short talk at Neil Perkin’s most recent Google Firestarters soirée a couple of weeks ago.
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